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Are you happy at work? And should you be?
Should you be happy when you're at work? - photo by Greg Kratz
Should you be happy when you're at work?

This is a question you've probably contemplated once or twice, maybe on a particularly hectic or frustrating day.

But despite such challenges, most of us would answer the previous question with an enthusiastic "Yes!" Much of corporate America seems to agree as for the past few years companies have placed a heavy emphasis on keeping workers happy.

I've written several times that happy employees are more productive, and I firmly believe that's true. If we help people find joy at the office, they'll work harder and better and have a good time doing it.

But the authors of a recent Harvard Business Review article contend that conventional wisdom might not be so wise after all.

The July 2015 article by Andre Spicer and Carl Cederstrom, "The Research We've Ignored about Happiness at Work," makes the argument that encouraging happiness in the office may not always be a good idea.

For example, they wrote, some research indicates a possible negative correlation between happiness defined here as "job satisfaction" and corporate productivity. A study of British supermarkets, in particular, showed profits were better when employees were more miserable.

Frankly, I find the proposition that miserable employees bring better profits a bit horrifying. And I would argue it is not sustainable. If workers hate their jobs, they'll be more likely to leave at the first opportunity, which means any added income could be eaten up by higher recruiting and training costs.

I also believe companies shouldn't be interested in making their workers miserable for purely human reasons, but that's probably not an argument some CEOs want to hear.

At any rate, that's not the only problem the article's authors found with the pursuit of happiness at work.

Spicer and Cederstrom wrote that trying to be happy all the time can be downright exhausting. They cited research showing that when happiness became a duty, it made people feel worse if they failed to feel it.

Not only that, but trying to be happy all the time could harm people's performance in some jobs, the authors wrote.

"One study found that people who were in a good mood were worse at picking out acts of deception than those who were in a bad mood," they wrote. "Another piece of research found that people who were angry during a negotiation achieve better outcomes than people who are happy.

"This suggests that being happy all the time may not be good for all aspects of our work, or jobs that rely heavily on certain abilities. In fact, for some things, happiness can actually make us perform worse."

I guess I can see how this particular point might be true, at least in some instances. Back when I was a newspaper reporter, I sometimes found that a particularly difficult or frustrating interview would give me the righteous rage I needed to write a better story. However, I don't think constant anger would have made me a superior journalist.

Elsewhere in the article, the authors wrote that seeking happiness at work may affect people's emotional states in other ways. For example, Spicer and Cederstrom wrote, one author found that people who focused on building happiness at work also started to "treat their private lives like work tasks." As they used the same tools and techniques they had learned at the office to try to build happy home lives, experiences with loved ones became "increasingly cold and calculating."

Along the same lines, people who expected their workplace to provide meaning in their lives became dependent on it, the authors wrote. If those people were eventually fired, they lost not just an income but also the promise of happiness.

"This suggests that when we see our work as a great source of happiness, we make ourselves emotionally vulnerable during periods of change," Spicer and Cederstrom wrote. "In an era of constant corporate restructuring, this can be dangerous."

Perhaps it's true that "pressure" to be happy which isn't the same as policies and practices that produce real happiness and contentment in employees actually makes some people feel worse.

I find that I'm more skeptical, though, of the points about workers who are trying to be happy in Cubeville having problems at home. I can't think of a time that I've witnessed these situations among my family members or friends. And, on the contrary, when I've been happier at work, I've also found more peace and contentment at home.

The authors pointed out other potential problems with the quest for happiness in the workplace, and I found all of this to be interesting food for thought. But after much contemplation, I still think we should try to help people be happy in their jobs. My reasons, discussed in this column every week, are anecdotal as opposed to scientific, but they feel right to me.

To be fair, Spicer and Cederstrom wrote that, in reality, work is "likely to make us feel a wide range of emotions. If your job feels depressing and meaningless, it might be because it is depressing and meaningless. Pretending otherwise can just make it worse.

"Happiness, of course, is a great thing to experience, but nothing that can be willed into existence," they wrote. "And maybe the less we seek to actively pursue happiness through our jobs, the more likely we will be to actually experience a sense of joy in them a joy which is spontaneous and pleasurable, and not constructed and oppressive. But most importantly, we will be better equipped to cope with work in a sober manner. To see it for what it is."

What it is, of course, is an important part of life that is not always pleasurable. But work can be fun, and I think it's OK to aim for that goal.

What do you think? Should people feel happy at work? Should employers try to help them feel that way? Or do you agree with some of the studies cited in the Harvard Business Review article?

Let me know your reactions through an email or an online comment, and I'll share some of your ideas in a future column.
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